Percussion instruments for Maya Music

In most art and archaeology museums you see lots of ceramic whistles, ocarinas and flutes. Because these are made from fired clay, they last for thousands of years. Yet the trumpets (made of wood) and the drums (those made of wood) are no longer preserved from the 3rd to 9th centuries. Only the ceramic drums are percussion instruments that you see in many museum exhibits and catalogs.

So to experience the drums, raspers, conch shells and other percussion instruments, it helps to visit a museum of music, such as that of Casa Maya Music K'ojom, a few minutes outside Antigua Guatemala.

Our on-going long-range research project is to better understand all the musical instruments of the Classic Maya and the other civilizations of Mesoamerica. We are starting with instruments made from wood, reeds, hides, jicara, morro, dried squash: all the musical instruments that are not ceramics.

Another place to see Mayan style drums is in village celebrations

In towns around Lake Atitlan, and in the Quiche and Huehuetenango areas of the Highlands, on a Saint’s day or other popular holiday, you may get to experience a procession that may have several Mayan drums being played.

Metal bells could have been available in Post Classic

Most Mayan cities did not have metal working facilities. What little copper or gold which may be found was brought in through trade. But in the Post Classic, more knowledge of how to work metal resulted in a few more metallic artifacts. But our work is on the Classic Maya, and most instruments are of clay, plant material, or deer (or comparable) animal hides.

Be aware that many rollout photos feature Mayan ceramic vases or bowls which have been excessively repainted. The repainting is called “restoration” to hope you don’t notice that the repainting is actually modern forgery.

The ceramic vase or bowl underneath this paint is authentic (in 90% of the cases). And the overall scene is generally close to authentic. It is the overlay of fresh paint that is modern and is fakery to raise the selling price.

Stringed musical instruments such as violin and guitar

Stringed instruments, especially violin and guitar, are popular in mariachi music, but no violin or guitar was used by the Maya or Aztec. The only stringed instrument accepted so far for the Classic Maya is the slit drum.

Summary of Percussion Instruments of Maya Music

Since I am not a musician, I arrange these in a manner that my brain can better understand them. There are two other drums that I will be adding when we publish our entire monograph on drums later in year 2022. I have not yet added “musical rocks.” There are many rocks that you can strike and make impressive music with. But I have not yet noticed these documented for the Classic Maya, probably because most of us archaeologists do not realize these existed. So if a rock is found “it’s just a rock that was part of architecture.”

In the meantime, here is a quick summery of the most common percussion instruments.

Percussion: on hide Percussion: no animal hide
Upright drum, pax Rattle, morro or jicaro or comparable; with pellets inside
Small drum, on the floor Raspador; you scrape something on a hollow material, a gourd or comparable.
Ceramic drum, Dresden codex Horizontal log drum; still made and used today, tun kul
Two-chambered ceramic drum turtle carapace, rasped or struck with deer antler, stick, or drum stick with soft enlarged end.
Narrow height but ample width Circular drum; not much documented  
Friction drum, with string from above.  
To see basic drum sizes and shapes, Norman Hammond’s article is a good first step. To see dozens more examples and variants, check out:

  • MÉNDEZ Rojas, Alejandro Nestor and Ángel Agustín PIMENTEL Díaz
  • 2010
  • Tipología de los Instrumentos Musicales y Artefactos Sonoros Arqueológicos de Mesoamérica y el Norte de México. Thesis. 325 pages.

    I rate this as one of the five most comprehensive monographs on all musical instruments of the Maya and Aztec. I have found only two instruments (that I know of) that are missing in their 325 pages.
  • ZALAQUETT Rock, Francisca
  • 2021
  • Instrumentos sonorous prehispánicos mayas. Tomo I. Idiófonos. Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, Centro de Estudios Mayas, UNAM, Mexico.
I rate this as also one of the five most comprehensive monographs on all musical instruments of the Maya and Aztec. It is a challenge to find more than one Classic Maya instrument (that I know of) that is missing in their 345 pages. And keep in mind this is only Volume 1: wait until a Tomo II is available.

My favorite instruments are the horizontal hollowed log (slit drum) that is an awesome drum yet with no deer hide anywhere. However these slit drums are pictured much more often in Aztec and other conquest period codices; slit drums are not as common in Classic Maya art.

My other favorite musical instrument of the ancient Maya is the turtle carapace which you rasp with a deer’s antler. You can also play a turtle shell with other kinds of hand-held objects: drum stick with our without padding at the end. Ethnomusicologist Dr Igor Sarmientos came to the FLAAR Mesoamerica office to have lunch with us a week before Christmas, 2021. He gave me some tips on how to play turtle carapaces. I had made a turtle shell marima based on what has been published about the row of turtle carapaces found in Early Classic Tikal Burial 10, under a temple in front of the North Acropolis. We will be making a series of different instruments using turtle carapaces (in addition to the single shell and in addition to the turtle carapace marimba in horizontal format).

Children seem to like rattles and also the miniature pseudo-marimbas that people sell at tourist places in Guatemala. Music is for people of all ages.

My personal background in Mayan Music dates to the 1960’s and 1970’s

INAH archaeologists in 1962 accepted my offer to help them carry their equipment and supplies through the Lacandon rain forest and across the rivers of Chiapas (since there was no airfield at Bonampak in 1962). So they flew me on their single-engine Cessna from Tenosique, Tabasco to the landing field in Chiapas many kilometers away from Bonampak, and I carried equipment and supplies to Bonampak. Then helped them set up camp. After that week the camp was finished and they began their work so I explained that I was in Mexico to explore the Puuc, Chenes areas of the Yucatan Peninsula, so somehow I got back to a town with 3rd class bus and continued my exploration of the Mayan world (at age 17, graduated from high school and ready to enter Harvard as a freshman that September).

Already by mid-1970’s I had photographed lots of Maya polychrome vases which showed musical scenes. I provided these photos to Roberto Rivera y Rivera, who with my permission featured them in his 1977 INAH publication, LOS INSTRUMENTOS MUSICALES DE LOS MAYAS.

Today, over 4 decades later I would like to help the children, tweens, and teens of Guatemala to learn about the music of past centuries and past millennia. As soon as funding is available we look forward to doing an inspiring story to encourage young people to recreate the traditional music of Guatemala.


Museo Casa Maya Music K'ojom is an easy place to experience musical instruments of Guatemala, both pre-Columbian and those used by local people today.

This museum is open Monday through Saturday; closed on Sunday.

The museum address is: Centro Cultural La Azotea, final calle del cementerio, Jocotenango, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, C.A. You can take a TucTuc from Antigua for about US$3.

tel (502) 7831 1486- tel/ fax (502) 7831 1483

email: /

The people in the museum are pleasant and hospitable and we appreciate the access to study the instruments provided by the museum manager.

There are what appear to be polo fields for horses on the same property.

Before you enter the museum you can wander around a nice garden to the left.

There is a handsome Ceiba pentandra tree in the parking lot in front of the museum. The kapok tree is the national tree of Guatemala.

Our bibliography of suggested reading on Mayan musical instruments

The two major kinds of drums of the Maya of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras were also the two principal size and shape of drum of the Aztecs (and surely of the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs and others of Mexico). We will be issuing our completely bibliography later this year. But in the meantime, you can see lots of these drums, especially my favorite horizontal drum, on this web page below:
The photos of the Aztec drums are the lower half of this page.

We are preparing a comprehensive bibliography on drums of all sizes and shapes of Mesoamerica, albeit focusing on the Maya and Aztec. Here are a few videos on drums:
21:38 huehuetis Enruva

Shows high school students in Mexico carving designs on the outside of mid-sized standing drums (half the height of a Chama style standing drum). But at 9:36 minutes you can see them putting the hide on top (something rarely shown elsewhere). At 10:11 minutes you see them nailing the leather down. Obviously the classic Maya did not have “nails” but they surely had a comparable way (that needs to be found, named, and documented).

Unfortunately this video does not show how the middle of the log is hollowed out; but other videos do show that aspect (but don’t show putting the hide across the top). The video ends with the touristic aspect of a flaming rubber ball. But at least a few minutes help you see how they put on the top. Shows that more research is needed.

Videos on how to make Drums:

Most of these videos are from Mexico; would help to have these videos for Guatemala and Honduras.
1:51, Artesano Mexicano Elabora Instrumentos Musicales Prehispánicos

How an 80-year old (in Mexico) makes the tall standing drum.
4:07, Teponaztles de Ollin Ayalas

How to make a slit drum. Literally shows the first step (but only the first step; then the video ENDS). You then figure out that what you just saw was Part 1; so you look for Part 2.

Fortunately Part 2 spares you having to watch the entire cutting out of the hole; Part 2 starts with 90% of the opening already being made:
6:54, Teponaztles de Ollin Ayalas 2
53:05, Como hacer un Sagrado Huehuetl con Don Mario Beltran !

You don’t need to watch all 53 minutes. I skipped to 15:34 to see how be figures out what part to hollow out and what part to leave. No other video that I have seen in the last week of watching Maya and Aztec musical videos have I seen this detail. But then he uses a motor saw to clear out the middle (efficient but not pre-Hispanic). 41:49 shows how the “feet” (supports) are created (with motor saw). Worth watching since you can learn a few aspects.

What I notice is that most of the drums made today are not very wide (and most not very tall). This is because trees of the proper size and species are not as available today as in the past.

Drums shown on 7th to 9th century Classic Maya drums also vary in diameter and height, but we definitely need to make some of the larger ones. The snag is how to protect them from cracking from change in humidity and change in temperature

Videos on Drums:
4:19, El Teponaztli 1-Ideas Rítmicas

At 0:35 shows a small slit drum of the kind sold in tourist stores throughout Mexico and Guatemala and probably Belize and Copan Ruinas, Honduras. These are nicely made in small portable size so tourists can take them home. But this size is rarely if at all pictured in pre-Hispanic images. And the modern ones for tourists are made from bamboo. Bamboo of this diameter is not native; not pre-Columbian. Wide bamboo is from Asia or South America, planted all over Mesoamerica. Native bamboo, jimba, Guadua longifolia, is not this diameter whatsoever. We have studied native Maya spiny bamboo in our Municipio de Livingston project of 15 months (2020-2021) and during our PNYNN project August 2018-July 2019 and now in our 2021-2025 project of cooperation and coordination with CONAP (the forestry and ecology conservation entity of Guatemala).

Most recently updated December 2021
as our musical instruments project moves forward
First Posted February 2018

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